NEW YORK, Dec. 7 (JTA) — Judy Brookover has seen the world of Jewish children’s books go from famine to feast.
“When I was a child, the only Jewish books that were read to me were the stories of the people of Chelm,” says Brookover, 53, referring to the legendary town populated by fools. “There really wasn’t that much else out there.”
A generation later, when Brookover’s daughter, now 25, was young, there weren’t many more.
You could almost “fit all the Jewish children’s books on one shelf. There was very little available, and what there was, was dreadful,” says Brookover, the librarian at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.
By the time her youngest daughter, now 15, came along, “there were many more. Since then, it’s like a deluge.”
Deluge might be an overstatement, but there’s no doubt that the publishing world has discovered Jewish children’s books.
“There are times when I say, ‘Oy, if I see another Chanukah book, I’ll scream,’ ” Brookover says.
For older kids, Jewish books focus on the Holocaust, but for Chanukah and Passover, picture books are hot because they make good gifts.
Each fall, both Jewish and mainstream publishers put out kids’ books on the Maccabees’ struggle to liberate the Jews from Syrian rule, hoping to capitalize on the Jewish passion for the written word.
In many cities, the mega-chains that now dominate U.S. booksellers even feature a separate table for Chanukah books.
One reason for the boom is cultural, says Leonard Marcus, a historian and critic of children’s books.
In the 1980s, publishing caught the multiculturalism bug, he says. “On the whole,” this “has translated into more books of African-American interest and now more books of Latino interest. To some extent, Judaica has come along with the others.”
But business is business, and the boom wouldn’t have occurred if publishers didn’t think they could make money.
Until recently, children’s books represented an unfilled niche in the publishing market, Marcus says.
“Children’s books in general have been looked down upon in the literary world,” he says. “That has changed somewhat in the last 10 years as children’s books have begun to make money.”
Sales of children’s books reached $1 billion a year in the 1990s, Marcus says, but it’s unknown how much of that comes from Jewish books.
The field reached a milestone when Eric Kimmel — nicknamed “Mr. Chanukah” for the popularity of his books — won a prestigious Caldecott honor for “Hershel and the Hannukah Goblins,” a tale of a clever villager who manages to outwit goblins and save the holiday celebration.
Despite the boom, however, not all is rosy.
There’s a dearth of books on other Jewish topics — such as Purim or the commandments, for example.
Also, since publishers tend to aim at the lowest common denominator, Chanukah children’s books are restricted to a few narrow categories.
Stories that teach the basics about the holiday are popular, as are books that are set in shtetls and rely on tales from Jewish folklore.
There’s a “surprisingly large selection of children’s books by Chanukah writers trying to sound like Zero Mostel,” says Marcus, referring to the actor famous for his portrayal of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
While the magic and playfulness of these stories appeal to children — and some adults — they teach a Judaism that might not be relevant to the 21st- century child, whose grandparents may never have stepped foot in a shtetl except for a family heritage tour.
“Let’s talk about a modern bubbe and what they do. My bubbe takes me to the theater,” Brookover says. “You can talk about making challah with bubbe, but put her in a modern kitchen.”
Books on intermarried families struggling with celebrations of Chanukah and Christmas have begun to appear, but these books often are pedantic, Marcus says.
“Books of that kind are rarely good because they’re written by someone who has a therapeutic goal in mind,” he says. “If a book is only about one thing, it has failed, and books” about intermarried families “almost always fall into that category.”
In fact, when looking for gifts for a child, one rule of thumb is to choose books that are not didactic, publishing experts say.
“Don’t get a book because it has a good message,” says Elizabeth Devereaux, the children’s religion books editor for Publishers Weekly, the leading trade magazine for the book world. “Get a book because it has a good story.”